Partisan Judicial Elections Proposed for MT

A proposed referendum for the 2012 ballot in Montana would require candidates for district court judgeships and the state Supreme Court to run with partisan labels.

Currently, the state’s judicial elections are nonpartisan. State Rep. Michael More, a Republican and sponsor of the referendum bill, said about the measure, “The issue is greater transparency in the judicial branch.” According to a Helena Independent Record article, he continued:

“We all bring our biases to the table.

“I think it’s just a matter of maturity to require that (judicial candidates) reveal those biases going into an election.”

But Niki Zupanic, public policy director of the ACLU of Montana, warned, “We strongly feel this will entrench our judiciary in partisan politics.”

And Ed Bartlett, a lobbyist for the Montana Judges Association, said the proposal “would take away, or perhaps be contrary to, the independence and impartiality of the district court judges and Supreme Court justices,” an Associated Press article reported.

CA Focuses on Judicial Elections and Fairness

California legislators got a glimpse of nasty advertising from other states when the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Judicial Elections in California: Threats to the Perception of Fairness.”

According to a Legal Pad blog post, a video showed out-of-state campaign ads that “smeared various court candidates by linking them to insurers, trial lawyers or heinous criminals supposedly released too soon from prison.” (A video of the entire hearing is available here.)

California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin told the hearing he was “getting closer” to opposing judicial elections completely. “The more that I hear about what’s going on across the country, the more concerned I am,” testified Justice Chin, who chairs the Commission for Impartial Courts.

The hearing included discussion by scholars of the Caperton v. Massey and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Cal Watchdog blog.

Reforms that were discussed include public funding of judicial elections; disclaimers in campaign commercials; and longer terms for trial court judges. The witnesses included University of California, Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Stanford Law School Professor Pamela Karlan.

California’s  judicial system “is shaped largely by gubernatorial appointments and unremarkable retention elections,” according to Legal Pad blog. But that is not always the case;  California was the scene for a widely publicized retention election revolt in which three justices, including Chief Justice Rose Bird, were voted off the court in 1986 for decisions overturning the death penalty.

O'Connor Talks Election Reform in MN

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, traveling widely to call for an end to state judicial elections, visited Minnesota to support eliminating contested judicial elections there.

Reformers including former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie are seeking a change in Minnesota’s constitution to replace contested judicial elections with up-or-down retention elections, and to require that gubernatorial appointments of judges be based on merit selection, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Justice O’Connor “advised legislators that if they put such an amendment before Minnesota voters this year, other states will notice, and follow suit,” the Star-Tribune reported. She also said the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision likely will bring corporate-sponsored ads to bear on judicial elections.

You can learn more about reform efforts in Minnesota from Gavel Grab, and about appointment/retention systems from Justice at Stake’s issues page.

Opinion: State Judicial Reforms 'More Essential' Now

State-enacted reforms to protect the integrity of their courts “now…are even more essential” in the wake of a Supreme Court  decision boosting the clout of corporate and union cash in elections, a New York Times column says.

Headlined “Hanging a ‘For Sale’ Sign Over the Judiciary,” the column was written by Dorothy Samuels, a member of the Times’ editorial board. It is one of two fresh and important reports from nationally circulated publications focusing on the impact for states courts of the Citizens United decision; the second, by Tony Mauro in National Law Journal, suggests some judicial reformers actually have found a glimmer of hope after the 5-4 ruling.

Samuels posits that the threat to judicial independence posed by high-spending state judicial campaigns and by special-interest attack ads promises to get “worse, possibly much worse” thanks to the ruling. Her column offers data from Justice at Stake, tracking a dramatic increase in state Supreme Court election fundraising  (calculated at $205.8 million between 2000 and 2009, compared to $84.9 million in the previous decade.)

Samuels quotes from Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote in his dissent that these states “may no longer have the ability to place modest limits on corporate electioneering even if they believe such limits to be critical to maintaining the integrity of their judicial systems.”

Not only will judicial candidates need to spend more time raising campaign money, but an escalating money war could lead to a polarized bench, she cautions. Samuels concludes by quoting retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:

“To protect the integrity of their court systems, states need to enact basic reforms: switching from judicial elections, for instance, to the selection of judges on merit, or adopting strict rules that bar judges from ruling in cases involving major financial supporters. ‘No states can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political judicial campaign,’ Justice O’Connor said on Tuesday. Achieving these reforms won’t be easy, but now they are even more essential.” (more…)

WI Senate Votes to Close 'Issue Ad' Loophole

Wisconsin’s state Senate voted 26-7 Tuesday for a bill to close what critics called a loophole in state law and regulate “issue ads” more tightly. The measure moves to the state Assembly.

The bill would require groups running most types of “issue ads” to disclose their money sources and to comply with fund-raising limits in state law, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Issue ads” typically attack or support candidates without explicitly advocating a vote. Last year, Wisconsin passed a bill to curb the influence of special-interest spending in state Supreme Court elections by supporting qualifying candidates with taxpayer funding (see earlier Gavel Grab posts.) That bill did not address issue advertising.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a partner of Justice at Stake, had called passage of the legislation the “single most significant action” that senators could take to improve elections in Wisconsin. You can learn more about disclosure laws for “third-party” campaigns, which have poured millions of dollars into judicial elections, from Justice at Stake’s issue page on the topic.

In another developing news story in Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court could finalize Thursday a proposed order saying that campaign donations to judges will not require judges to step aside from hearing cases involving a supporter. The court voted in October to adopt new rules, but the court has to issue a written order to make the rules effective, the Journal Sentinel reported.

To learn more about the recusal rule debate in Wisconsin, click here for other Gavel Grab stories. You can read about recusal reform from Justice at Stake’s issues page.

Retention Elections Sought for MD Circuit Judges

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is urging the state’s legislature to adopt retention elections for circuit judges, to replace contested elections, in order to “remove the taint of money from the process.”

In a commentary published by the Baltimore Sun, Gansler maintains that Maryland’s current scheme–a governor’s appointment of circuit judges, followed by contested elections to retain their seats–has been threatened by big spending for judicial candidates, much of it from individuals and interests who may appear before them in court:

“When it comes to our judiciary, impartiality has always been Marylanders’ chief concern. Unfortunately, that value is threatened by the current practice of contested elections for circuit court judges, which exposes judges to influence peddling, bias and political whim.”

To “clean up” the elections, Gansler proposes legislation establishing that in the next election cycle after a judge’s appointment, the judge stand for a yes-no retention election without a challenger, and stand for retention every 10 years after that.

Maryland currently has retention elections for its appointed appellate judges, and Gansler states that extending this merit plan to include circuit judges has support of the Maryland State Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of Maryland and the chairwoman of the Maryland Conference of Circuit Judges.

You can learn more about appointment and retention systems from Justice at Stake’s issues page, and more about the perils of special-interest spending on judicial elections from a separate JAS  page.

Editorial: Clear Call for PA Judicial Election Reform

A leading Philadelphia newspaper strongly endorses judicial election reform in Pennsylvania in an editorial entitled “Clear evidence.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial cites as evidence both the high-spending state Supreme Court election in 2009–combined with popular concern about “justice for sale”–and a scandal in Luzerne County that has ensnared several judges:

“Most Pennsylvanians say they suspect that justice is for sale because candidates for judgeships have to raise campaign funds. The big-spending 2009 Supreme Court election…did nothing to restore their fraying faith in an impartial judiciary.”

“The course for state policymakers is clear: Step in and reform judicial selection, or continue to preside over a system that erodes public confidence in justice as it’s dispensed in Pennsylvania.”

While merit selection of judges has not been proposed at the county level beyond Philadelphia, “the same system could improve both the quality and diversity of other county courts” in the state, the editorial says. It also echoes a call by our friends at Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts for measures to heighten disclosure of campaign spending.

To learn more about calls for election reform in Pennsylvania, you can check out earlier posts in Gavel Grab, along with information about PMC’s report on spending in the 2009 Supreme Court election. You can read about judicial appointment and retention systems by clicking here for Justice at Stake’s issues page.

Ohio Candidate Cool to Judicial Appointment Plan

An appellate judge who is running as a Democrat for the Ohio Supreme Court has declined to endorse a  judicial appointment and retention election plan, aimed at reducing the influence of big campaign cash and partisan politics.

According to The Columbus Dispatch, Judge Mary Jane Trapp said “Ohio voters have overwhelmingly rejected the idea, most recently in 1987.”  Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, a Justice at Stake board member, has proposed appointing Supreme Court justices and held a recent conference to gather support.

Earlier this year, Judge Trapp said public financing for judicial elections is “something that needs to be looked at,” and it has “been very successful in North Carolina. But we have a budget issue, so we have to be realistic about that.” You can read more about her views by clicking here for other Gavel Grab posts, or you can visit here to learn about Justice Moyer’s election reform ideas.

Plan to Appoint Judges Is Floated in Ohio

Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer wants to give citizens a chance to vote on replacing competitive elections for the state Supreme Court with a judicial appointment plan aimed at reducing the influence of big campaign cash and partisan politics.

Under a proposal discussed at a two-day conference, when a vacancy occurs on the court, Ohio’s governor would pick a new justice from among three names recommended by a bipartisan panel, according to an article in the Columbus Dispatch. After two years, the justice would run in a retention election, with no challenger. In later years, retention elections would be held regularly.

To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, supporters could collect more than 400,000 signatures from registered voters or persuade three-fifths of lawmakers in the House and Senate to put it on the ballot.

Justice Moyer, who is stepping down in 2010, said he would like to see the cause taken up by legislators. At the conference, attended by  political, legal, business and civic leaders, 78 percent of participants backed the idea of putting the shift on a ballot, said Justice Moyer and Barbara J. Howard, president of the Ohio State Bar Association, and Meg G. Flack, president of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. (more…)

W. Va. Panel Urges Judicial Reforms

Saying that public confidence in the court system has eroded, a judicial reform panel named by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin has recommended a pilot public financing program for one state Supreme Court seat and “an experiment with merit selection” in initially appointing, rather than electing, judges to a new intermediate court of appeals that the panel wants to see created.

The West Virginia Independent Commission on Judicial Reform (see report here) also recommended that lawmakers establish advisory committees to screen and submit candidates to the governor for filling interim vacancies, and that the secretary of state publish voter guides on judicial candidates.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was honorary chairwoman of the commission. She has advocated abolishing judicial elections, and the West Virginia panel did not recommend that major reform, according to an article in the Charleston Daily Mail.

The commission recommended lesser steps to rein in judicial campaign spending and bolster public perceptions in face of what it called “an erosion of the public’s confidence in the State’s justice system as a neutral and unbiased arbiter.”

On escalating campaign spending, and the public financing pilot program for one of two state Supreme Court seats in 2012, the commission wrote:

“As campaign spending has increased, so too has the perception that interested third parties can sway the court system in their favor through monetary participation in the election process. This perception strikes at the very heart of the judiciary’s role in our society….

“Something must be done to address the continued growth in spending on judicial campaigns in West Virginia.  As spending by candidates and third parties increases, so too will the perception that ‘justice may be bought.’”